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Swinson’s Lib Dems can achieve lots if they aren’t tribal

by Hugo Dixon | 22.07.2019

After being chosen as Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson said: “This is the time for working together. This is not the time for tribalism.” If she is true to her word, the UK’s pro-European forces will be well placed to triumph in an election.

The country could easily be heading for one, as a result of the political crisis Boris Johnson seems set to unleash as prime minister. Under our first-past-the-post voting system, Johnson may be able to increase the number of Tory MPs if he reaches a pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the pro-European vote is split.

In such a scenario, it will be vital that pro-Europeans work across party lines to stop Johnson – and then form a coalition to stop Brexit. Swinson has a critical role to play, as the leader of the largest unambiguously pro-European party.

Deal with the Greens

The Lib Dems, currently polling around 20% of the vote, can’t achieve much on their own. But if they come to an arrangement with the Green Party, they would be a force to reckon with. Together the two parties are currently close to 30% in the polls. 

A deal would ideally involve the Lib Dems and Greens standing down in some seats and supporting the other – so there is one pro-European champion in those constituencies where they have a chance of winning.

But Swinson needs to do more than reach out to the Greens. In Wales, she needs to bring Plaid Cymru into a three-way pact – building on the deal they have in the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election next month. There Plaid and the Greens have stood down to give the Lib Dems a clear shot at the Tory MP. The Lib Dems need to return the favour elsewhere.

Reach out to Labour

Even that won’t be enough. The new Lib Dem leader needs to reach out to pro-European Labour and Tory MPs. 

Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t yet said what he’ll do if there’s an election. But even if he unequivocally backs staying in the EU, Labour is an exceptionally tribal party. It’s hard to see it reaching a non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems and Greens – even though it should.

But the Lib Dems/Greens and Labour still don’t have to tear each other apart. The Lib Dems and Greens can stand but dial down their campaigning in those seats which Labour has a good chance of winning – provided the Labour candidate is unequivocally pro-European. And hopefully, Labour will return the favour.

There may also be a few seats – such as Johnson’s own constituency of Uxbridge – where the Lib Dems and Greens have no chance but Labour may win. Standing down in those seats, even if not reciprocated, would go down well with pro-European voters and would win them brownie points elsewhere.

Safe harbour for Tories

Swinson should also create a safe harbour for sensible Tory MPs, such as Philip Hammond and the Gaukeward Squad, who may need to bring down Johnson’s government to stop him crashing out of the EU without a deal. She shouldn’t require them to join the Lib Dems. Provided they quit the Tory Party and are unequivocally pro-European – say standing as independent Conservatives – the Lib Dems should be prepared to give them a free pass.

Sometimes this will be painful. For example, in Putney, the Lib Dems fancy their chances to unseat Justine Greening, the pro-European Tory. But Swinson needs to keep her eyes on the big picture. If the Lib Dems don’t stand against independent Conservatives, these MPs are likely to encourage voters elsewhere to vote Lib Dem.

The same goes for the remnants of Change UK, which has split into two factions each with five MPs. Swinson shouldn’t require them to join the Lib Dems, so long as they back the party elsewhere.

Virtuous circle

Such cooperative politics could give a huge boost to the pro-European cause. Pro-Europeans voters are tired of tribalism and desperately want people to work together. 

The stronger any Lib Dem/Green-led pact looks, the more votes it will get. It could then enjoy a virtuous circle. The media will give it more attention, as it will look more credible. Activists will put in more time. Donors will give it more money. And all that will further enhance its chances of success.

Swinson has a huge opportunity – provided she really does work across party lines. She should grab it with vigour.

16 Responses to “Swinson’s Lib Dems can achieve lots if they aren’t tribal”

  • Great pity they cant respect a democratic referendum result. As a Green voter in the past I certainly will NOT vote Lib Dem to stop Brexit. I will however place my vote in the best place to ensure the HARDEST possible Brexit.

  • …and I will DEFINITELY vote against whichever Party opposes the Corn Laws and for whichever Party supports the Great Reform Bill…..

    Nobody voted in June 2016 (or indeed ever) to stop the clock on democracy, not even Mr Winwood.

  • “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t yet said what he’ll do if there’s an election. But even if he unequivocally backs staying in the EU, Labour is an exceptionally tribal party. It’s hard to see it reaching a non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems and Greens – even though it should.”

    So it’s a pity Jo Swinson has already declared she won’t work with Corbyn under any circumstances.

    Who’s the exceptionally tribal bad guy here?

  • Patrick,

    But the people have spoken. All of democracy stopped on 23rd June 2016 never to start again. It will be the Triumph of the Will of The People. Films will be made of it, as we march, arm in arm, towards our great solitary future as global leaders in welching out of agreements and selective fact picking.

    All hail our great leader, Theresa May – erm – Boris “Johnson” Johnson…

    may god have mercy on our souls…

  • Phil Winwood, your letter sounds like the cry of someone who stopped thinking in 2016. Fact is that since then things changed and the latest is that on the remain side people finally cottoned on to the fact that sensible co-operation has a very good chance that your kind of democracy gets changed into a less nationally dangerous version. And overturns Brexit as a result, probably with a bigger majority than leave ever had. Facts of life mate, grin and bear it.

  • I am happy that Swinson has won…the LibDems urgently need an injection of energy. However, the policy of Stopping Brexit is a good start but insufficient. It cannot be just a case of same old, same old. What do they plan to do post-killing-off Brexit.? Many voters have no idea about the benefits of EU membership. She at least needs to get that ball rolling….and announcements about further benefits, such as the recent trade deals with Canada and Japan and possible investments in new technology (with the OK of the EU of course) should make interesting reading. Membership of the EU needs some energy behind it too!

  • I suppose that Winwood is correct, providing that he is sure that what is on offer from the new government fits exactly what was offered by the referendum. I seem to recall we were expecting “exactly the same benefits”, “easiest trade deals ever”, and so on. Holding people to the referendum is like rewarding a crook for his successful lies. And to hide this under the cloak of “democracy” really takes the biscuit. Let people decide if this is really what they voted for..and let them take into account the biggest lier of the lot, Boris, who has been rewarded with the job of PM.

  • Phil, where on the original voting form did it say anything about a hard Brexit ? As I recall it was a simple in/out question. All the prominent brexiteers were confident of achieving the “best possible” Brexit. After 3 years they’re no nearer. I think you must have been living on a very remote island for the last three years not to have noticed that even the arch-brexiteers are prepared to admit that there will be hard times ahead, whatever Brexit is achieved.

    BTW do you enjoy six weeks leave pa and paid sick leave ? Courtesy of the EU.

  • Phil Winwood…what are you even doing here??? The only reason you’re commenting – on a clearly pro-European, anti-Brexit platform – is to give us someone to disagree with. In which case, job done. But think again?! Waste your words elsewhere.
    As to the article…well said – it’s a huge opportunity (our only opportunity?) to join forces and stop the rising dissent, racism and influence of Trump in the UK. #stopbrexit.

  • I am a retired (May 2016) consultant geriatrician and am hugely distressed at the damage BREXIT will do to the economy of the country I love. But I am distraught at the damage to the health service I gave my career to.

    Many voted Leave because they believed BREXIT would deliver additional funding for the NHS. However the 15% fall in the Pound has meant the BREXIT vote immediately delivered £Bilions in cuts in extra equipment costs. For example: – The NHS drug budget is some £16 Billion, we import about 60% or £10 Billion worth. So in drugs alone the NHS is spending £1.5 Billion extra a year since BREXIT.

    However Staffing to cope with the needs of our increasing ageing population is our greatest problem. When the NHS was set up life expectancy was about 64 for men and 71 for women. Now it is 81 for men and 85 for women. The numbers of healthcare workers needed has expanded hugely. To make matters worse my “Baby Boom generation “ did not even reproduce itself leaving increased numbers of elderly people to be looked after by fewer young ones.

    We have shortages across the board, but to look at the example of nursing: Since the referendum the numbers of EU trained nurses joining the register has fallen dramatically and the number leaving has hugely increased. There are more than 50,000 nursing vacancies and these numbers will increase. The Royal colleges of GPs, Nursing, Midwives, The BMA and the Kings Fund have all produced detailed reports explaining that any form of BREXIT is a disaster for the NHS.
    The Lib Dems are the only major party to oppose Brexit and therefore the only one that truly supports the NHS.

  • John, absolutely correct, the vote was a straight in or out referendum. We voted out so how come we have all these dopey politicians telling us we must stay??????

  • Peter – two basic reasons. In brief.

    1) Very few people who voted to leave knew anything about the EU. Still less the benefits of being a member. Yes, I know, we are net contributors and that is fitting since we are a prosperous nation (at the moment). A considerable number of people voted leave to stick it to DC because he was such an unpopular figure and obviously on the side of remain. In fact, some people didn’t even know who DC was – such is the depth of political ignorance of a.certain section of society. (Boring or not, politics is important – it affects us all).
    2) The effects of leaving were (and still are to an extent) unknown and various figures, Boris among them, told out-and-out lies about the pros and cons of Brexit. It was so confusing that a great many voters simply voted “like their mates” in the belief they were voting to improve their lives, especially in the NE and midlands which have been “left out” for decades. Fair comment, but leaving will not improve things for them and likely to make things a whole lot worse.

    To sum up, the referendum was carried out under the most appallingly confused circumstances with lies and ignorance the order of the day. It is therefore, I think, reasonable to have another vote, now that we know a whole lot more FACTS about the pros and cons of Brexit.

    And, when considering this, bear in mind that the EU is not, principally, about trade, it is primarily about security. Look around the world, social convulsions and dictatorships everywhere. The EU, for all its faults – and they’re many – is an oasis of rational calm, despite the likes of Farage, Le Pen, et al.

  • Absolutely agree that the Lib Dems must be prepared to work across party lines, and not be tribal. The Greens have been very constructive so far . The Scottish and Welsh nationalists and Change UK must also work together for the common good.

    The biggest challenge I think will be working with Labour. If you add all the pro Europe parties support together with Labour, there is an overall pro Europe majority in the country. We know that the overwhelming majority of Labour members and MPs are pro Europe. However, Labour is a large party with a long and proud tradition, and they will not easily agree to a pact with other parties. That is especially the case with Corbyn as its leader, who clearly has an ambition to head a Labour government on his terms. However, if he is sincere in wanting to stop a disasterous No Deal , there is no alternative but to work together with other pro Europe parties, at least in the short term.

    But the Lib Dems will also have to be ready to reach out more to Labour if the immediate danger of a No Deal is to be avoided.

  • John – I do accept your points about DC and some ignorance about the EU in general (although that in my experience was on both sides). I am not as I have said many times on this site against everything the EU does and there are many good areas in terms of bringing up smaller economies and the ability of citizens to move around more easily in terms of study and work. But my main concerns have been around the political project of deeper integration. This has (and will) greatly increase the powers of the centre but this isn’t being achieved by true democracy. We have seen over many years how treaties have been agreed with governments to hand over more and more powers to Brussels without agreement (via referendum) of the sovereign peoples of those countries. This has allowed the EU to develop a political system that does not have the true democratic scrutiny that other countries such as the UK has. This has then allowed a bureaucratic cabal to hold the levers of power in the EU. I really wanted the EU to change to become more flexible and accountable to all the people of Europe. I then came to the opinion some years ago that this is not possible with the current model so the only option was to leave.
    And with regards to the referendum, I actually thought it was conducted in a thorough and generally honest way. Obviously there were plenty of whoppers being thrown about but in my view the main lies were being told by the remain side (government, big business, CBI, IMF etc) to scare. and my experience of people I spoke to was of deep interest and concern and I know many of them who voted to remain out of fear.
    Oh and one other point – I watched politics live earlier and saw one of the biggest supporters of a peoples vote – Caroline Lucas – state that a 2nd referendum was essential but then to declare that if there was a 2nd leave vote she would not still support any deal brought forward in parliament. Democrat, I think not!

  • Can’t help feel she made a grave error with public support and in the prospects of a valuable second referendum when she refused to say that she’d respect the result. Hardly going to inspire people to support her